The main conflict of this play stems from the fact that Mrs. Alving feels remorse for her part in helping to deceive the world about what sort of man Captain Alving was. She feels that she should have told the truth to Oswald long ago. If she had been honest with him all along, the disease that he inherited from his father may still have been unavoidable, but she could have saved him the confusion that he felt upon finding out that his father, who he thought was morally pure, had syphilis. His own character might have been less cynical if the truth about his father had not come as such a shock.
For his part, Pastor Manders supports the idea of deception. When Mrs. Alving talks about truth, he counters her with talk about ideals. He tells her that, regardless of what the true facts are, Oswald needs to have ideals, that she should not sour his image of his father if that is something that Oswald thinks he can believe in.
In the end, the pastor’s belief in deception turns against him. Because his own ideal is that Engstrand is basically a decent, if weak, person, he is more willing to believe what Engstrand says about the fire at the orphanage than what he himself remembers. Pastor Manders falls for a simple deception almost willingly because his grasp on truth is so completely flexible.
In Ghosts, the only true loyalty is between Mrs. Alving and her son. All other instances of loyalty seem pure, but they are actually based in social usefulness. The first example of this sort of insincere loyalty is in the early scene between Engstrand and Regina. He asks her to help him with the sailors’ home, making a feigned attempt to be concerned about her because she is his daughter. He is not intelligent enough, however, to stick with his case and eventually admits that he wants her there because it would be good for business to have a woman around. Later, he is just as transparently insincere about his loyalty when he tells Manders, ‘‘Jacob Engstrand may be likened to a guardian angel, he may, your Reverence.’’ The danger that he professes to ‘‘guard’’ the parson against is the charge that he burned down the orphanage, which is a charge that Engstrand himself made up.
Manders claims to be loyal to the sanctity of marriage. When discussing the time when Helena Alving came to his home after leaving his husband, though, his main focus is on the possible scandal that could have ensued. He’s less motivated by loyalty to religious and social doctrine than by fear of repercussions.
Oswald pretends to be loyal to Regina, the maid, but later on, after he reveals the facts about his disease, he talks about how he has counted on her to look after him when his disease makes him an invalid. Regina, for her part, professes her loyalty to Oswald until she finds out that they cannot be married and that he is ill. These are good reasons to not marry him and to realize that they will not have the relationship that she thought they would have, but she is extreme in tossing her loyalty aside, making plans to leave the house the very minute that she hears the news.
Ibsen uses Oswald’s disease to symbolize the corruption that is handed down from previous generations. When he tells his mother about being diagnosed, Oswald even quotes the doctor as making a statement that indicates a moral judgment beyond his medical one: ‘‘The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.’’ This makes sense because, in a strictly physical sense, it is Captain Alving’s blood that infected his unborn son. It makes just as much sense in a completely moral frame, too, because Oswald, after finding out that his father was sexually active, took on many of the same qualities. The facts that he smokes his father’s pipe, that he drinks constantly, and especially that he flirts with the family maid, just as his father did, are all directly related to being his father’s son. Ibsen uses the transmission of the syphilis...
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